Help Protect Our Planet's Coral Reefs

by The Coral Reef Alliance

Coral reefs around the world are being hit hard by many stressors. At the local level, they’re dealing with issues like overfishing and poor water quality. At the global level, they’re facing warming temperatures, more acidic oceans, and stronger storms. With effective management, we can mitigate many local threats. But the global ones are a bit harder. It’s clear that if corals are going to survive global climate change, they are going to have to adapt.

The good news is that we know that corals can adapt. They have evolved numerous ways to deal with environmental conditions – for example, some corals thrive in murky river mouths while others flourish in warm-water lagoons. But the pace of climate change is rapid, leaving corals with a small window in which to adjust to rapidly changing conditions.

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So what can we do to help corals adapt? This was the topic of one of Monday’s sessions at the International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS). Lead by our very own Dr. Madhavi Colton, the session brought together experts in coral reef biology, genetics, and ecology to answer this very question.

Many of the talks in this session focused on assisted evolution—that is, speeding up evolution through direct management. For example, one speaker shared her work creating hybrid corals—similar to work being done to create hybrid tomatoes. If you breed the sperm from one species of coral with the egg from another, can you create a coral that will do better under future conditions?

Dr. Adrian Stier of the University of Washington called these predict-and-prescribe approaches. Predict-and-prescribe approaches place bets about what future conditions will look like and which corals will do better under these conditions. If those predictions are correct, then these strategies can be incredibly effective. But according to Stier, they are also inherently risky because they are focused on a few species or genes. What if those bets are wrong? We risk losing the very diversity from which climate change winners could naturally emerge.

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Instead, Stier advocated following Warren Buffet’s example. Financial markets are like ecosystems in that they are inherently unpredictable (despite what your financial manager might have told you!). In the face of this uncertain future, a smart investment decision is to hedge your bets and diversify your portfolio. Through diverse investments, you are less likely to lose everything and more likely to consistently gets better returns.

We can do the same for coral reefs, Stier said. Instead of investing all of our efforts into creating corals of the future, we can protect diverse portfolios of options. We can let nature pick the winners. As one member of the audience stated, if we focus our efforts on reducing local threats—many local threats, not just one or two—and building marine protected areas that are connected to each other, we’ll have a better chance of corals adapting to future environmental changes.

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coral bleaching

Recently bleached corals appear white (Photo by XL Catlin Seaview Survey)

A plane flies low over a turquoise sea off the coast of Queensland in northern Australia. Below lies the largest reef in the world: the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). At first, I think—or maybe it’s hope—that the white patches are boulders or cresting wavelets. But as the plane flies on, their true identity becomes undeniably clear: these are bleached corals. And there are a lot of them.

As this video taken by researchers from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies makes clear, the GBR is in trouble. Reports indicate that up to 93 percent of corals in the northern part of the reef have bleached. But it’s not just the GBR that’s reporting bleaching: corals in the Indian Ocean, Caribbean, north and south Pacific, and coral triangle are all turning bone-white.

Coral Bleaching at Lizard Island

Corals provide complex structure for fish and other reef creatures, these bleached corals were photographed by XL Catlin Seaview Survey.

What does it mean to say that a coral is bleached? Corals get their colors from tiny algae that live within their tissues. These algae help corals grow by capturing energy from sunlight through photosynthesis. When waters get too warm for too long, these algae go into overdrive and their ramped up metabolism creates a toxic environment for corals. In response, the algae get kicked out, and the corals lose their color. Bleached corals aren’t necessarily dead corals, but the longer the bleaching continues, the lower the chance is that the corals will be able to recover.

The current bleaching in the GBR is part of the third recorded global bleaching event. It’s the result of a particularly strong El Niño occurring on top of already elevated global temperatures. Any single event is worrisome, but scientists are seeing an increase in the frequency of bleaching events. This means that corals don’t have the time they need to recover, and this has many people very worried. Only time will tell us how many—or how few—corals will survive this latest event.

I had been reading reports of bleaching from around the world for months before I saw that video, so I should have known what to expect. But those thousands of words had not prepared me for a minute-long video. Those of us in conservation like to joke that we are trying really hard to put ourselves out of work. How great would it be if coral reefs no longer needed our help? I have never been so saddened by job security than when I saw all those bleached corals. We have a lot of work still to do.

So what can we do? We can reduce local threats to reefs—such as overfishing and water pollution—so that reefs have ‘breathing room’ to recover from disturbances like bleaching. We can urge our politicians to take action on climate change. And we can find ways to support the many communities around the world that are working to protect coral reefs, one of the most wondrous ecosystems on earth.

A healthy reef off Palmyra Atoll

By reducing local threats to reefs, we can help reefs recover from larger global impacts (Photo by CORAL).

Over the past three years, CORAL has been privileged to work with world-class researchers from academic institutions and conservation organizations as part of the Reefs Tomorrow Initiative (RTI). Launched in 2012 with a grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, RTI’s goal was to understand how multiple factors—for example, wave energy, herbivores, and the distribution of coral species on a reef—interact to affect the health of a coral reef. In conjunction with our scientific research, we worked with coral reef managers around the world to understand how they use science to inform their management decisions.

We based our scientific research on the remote atoll of Palmyra in the central Pacific. Armed with cameras, clipboards, settlement tiles, temperature data loggers and more, we collected a truly staggering amount of biological, physical, and ecological data. Simultaneously, we worked with communities around the world—including partners in Fiji, the Solomon Islands, and Palau—to make sure that our scientific work was relevant to conservation and management challenges.

mapping seafloor life in PalmyraArmed with cameras, clipboards, settlement tiles and more, we collected a truly staggering amount of data. Photo by Brian Zgliczynski

Now that we have completed RTI, I wanted to share some of our key findings:

  • In areas not impacted by humans, there are rules that dictate how reef-building corals are distributed on a reef—that is, there’s a certain amount of determinism to who lives where. In more degraded systems, these rules tend to break down. Using mathematical models and data from Palmyra, we are exploring what this means for reef resilience and management.
  • The resilience of ecosystems cannot be decoupled from the resilience of human communities. For example, for communities to be resilient to storms, their ecosystems must be resilient as well. Knowing this, we have been able to improve the way we share scientific information with natural resource managers.
  • Not all herbivores are created equal. Through RTI’s work, we are learning that the effects that herbivores can have on a reef depend on their behavior, size, home ranges, and where they feed. This information will help us better manage herbivores on reefs.
  • Coral reefs protect shorelines by absorbing wave energy. Through work at Palmyra, we discovered that healthy reefs can dissipate significantly more wave energy than more degraded reefs. This suggests there may be a feedback loop whereby degradation of a reef’s physical complexity results in the reef experiencing greater wave energy, which in turns leads to further degradation of the reef.

spatial ecology of herbivoresThrough RTI’s work, we are learning that the effects that herbivores can have on a reef. Photo by Katie Davis

We have combined these and other findings into a mathematical model that allows us to explore how climate change might affect reef health by increasing the frequency and intensity of disturbance events. If we know how healthy reefs, like those at Palmyra, can withstand change and recover from disturbance, we may be able to unlock the key to this resilience for other reefs around the globe.

Fijian communityFor communities to be resilient to storms, their ecosystems must be resilient as well.

While funding for RTI has ended, our collaborative work will continue for years to come as we build on what we have learned from Palmyra and our work with communities around the world.

Members of RTI include American Museum of Natural History, Coral Reef Alliance, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Stanford University, University of California – Santa Barbara, University of North Carolina – Wilmington, Victoria University of Wellington. More at

As a Hawaiian, I have a deep connection to the both the land and the sea. This stems not only from my personal love of nature but from my belief that all life is interrelated, a belief that drives my work with the Coral Reef Alliance. I learned this early through the Kumulipo, the Hawaiian creation chant that explains how life began, our shared genealogy. The ancient chant is more than two thousand lines, practiced, learned and shared over generations. The Kumulipo begins with cosmic darkness.

Coral reef in Maui, Hawaii

O ke au i kahuli lole ka lani
At the time when the heavens turned about

O ke au i kuka‘iaka ka la
At the time when the sun was darkened

E ho‘omalamalama i ka malama
To cause the moon to shine

O ke au o Makali‘i ka po
The time of the rise of the Pleiades

O ka walewale ho‘okumu honua ia
The slime, this was the source of the earth

O ke kumu o ka lipo, i lipo ai
The source of the darkness that made darkness

O ke kumu o ka Po, i po ai
The source of the night that made night

O ka lipolipo, o ka lipolipo
The intense darkness, the deep darkness

O ka lipo o ka la, o ka lipo o ka po
Darkness of the sun, darkness of the night

Po wale ho–‘i
Nothing but night

Hanau ka po
The night gave birth

Hanau Kumulipo i ka po, he kane
Born was Kumulipo in the night, a male

Hanau Po‘ele i ka po, he wahine
Born was Po‘ele in the night, a female

Hanau ka ‘Uku-ko‘ako‘a, hanau kana, he ‘Ako‘ako‘a, puka
Born was the coral polyp, born was the coral, came forth

Healthy reef in Maui, Hawaii

The Kumulipo tells us that the Ko’a, or coral polyp, was the first organism created. The Ko’a was followed by seastars, cucumbers, and urchins, each increasing in complexity. Early translators of the chant noted that the order of species closely matches the biological groupings we use today.

(Line 18) Hanau ka Pe‘a, ka Pe‘ape‘a kana keiki puka
Born was the starfish, his child the small starfish came forth

 (Line 19) Hanau ka Weli, he Weliweli kana keiki, puka
Born was the sea cucumber, his child the small sea cucumber came forth

(Line 20) Hanau ka ‘Ina, ka ‘Ina
Born was the sea urchin, the sea urchin [tribe]

olivaceous tangs Kahekili, Maui

The chant teaches us that life in the sea and life on land are inexorably connected, and what we do on land has a direct connection and impact on all organisms in the sea. Hawaiians recognize that these organisms are the building blocks for all life on this shared planet we call Honua. There is a resurgence of interest in the chant as people look for the traditional knowledge of ecological connections. The Kumulipo is always in the background of people’s minds.

(Line 35) Hanau ka ‘Aki‘aki noho i kai
Born was the tough seagrass living in the sea

 (Line 36) Kia‘i ia e ka Manienie-‘aki‘aki noho i uka
Guarded by the tough landgrass living on land

surgeonfish tell the story

It is our Kuleana (responsibility) to preserve and protect all living organisms because we all come from the same primordial beginnings– ­from the night, from the slime, from the coral polyp. These lessons of the Kumulipo are deeply integrated into our consciousness. It’s something we feel in our na’au (deep within our being). We are all related, part of one ohana (family), and it is our responsibility to care for the land under our feet, the sea around us, and our coral reefs.

You can read the entire chant with translation by Martha Warren Beckwith here.


Coral reefs have been in the news lately for all the wrong reasons: island construction projects that are burying reefs, El Niño causing coral bleaching, and the risk to corals from carbon pollution. So it was unwelcomed news when we learned in October about a new study, Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, that shows a common ingredient in sunscreen, oxybenzone, is bad for corals.

Even at very low concentrations, the growth rate of baby corals exposed to oxybenzone slowed down and they became deformed. When the concentration was increased, baby corals bleached, which caused them to release their food-generating symbiotic algae.

Scientists are just starting to understand how chemicals like sunscreens can harm corals. The current study is an important step forward, but we expect to learn more about the effects of oxybenzone on corals in the years to come. We will also learn about how a myriad of chemicals are interacting to create a potentially toxic soup for corals. In the meantime, we know enough to take action. Oxybenzone is demonstrably bad for corals and we need to limit its concentration in coastal waters.


Corals are as important to the reefs as trees are to the forest: they build the habitat for all of the other life that calls the reef home. But by knowing that this risk exists for corals, we view this as an opportunity to do something small to help: when you’re visiting coral reef areas, don’t lather up with sunscreen, instead cover up for corals.

Everyone can take one or more of these simple steps:

  • Wear a full body UV swimsuit
  • Cover up with long sleeve sun shirt
  • Wear a hat and sunglasses
  • Limit exposure to the sun’s rays (particularly during the middle of the day)

As an added benefit, covering up just might be good for you, too. In addition to harming corals and other animals, scientists have identified oxybenzone as an endocrine disruptor with estrogenic effects (acting similarly to estrogen in our bodies) by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) (Sunscreen Guide) and the International Chemical Secretariat (Substitute it Now! (SIN)).

When covering up is not an option, there may be some sunscreens that are less harmful to corals. In particular, research indicates that nonchemical, mineral-based sunscreens are best (such as top EWG ranked W.S. Badger Company, All Terrain, and Babo Botanicals sunscreens).

Corals face many stressors that put the entire reef ecosystem at risk. Finding solutions for corals is important for the many species that call the reef home. It’s also important to the millions of people around the world who rely on coral reefs to provide food, protect shorelines from damaging storms and sea level rise, and to create economic opportunities through tourism. The good news is that many places are already working to help keep corals healthy by maintaining thriving fish populations and reducing coastal water pollution. If we can reduce harmful sunscreens from the coastal environment, we can give corals a little more breathing room to adapt to a changing world.


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Organization Information

The Coral Reef Alliance

Location: Oakland, CA - USA
Website: http:/​/​
Project Leader:
Sarah Freiermuth
Marketing & Communications Director
San Francisco, CA United States
$13,537 raised of $25,000 goal
247 donations
$11,463 to go
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